Stewart Brand and his five pounds of ideas for the '80s

Eight years ago, when Stewart Brand's "The Last Whole Earth Catalog" won the National Book Award for Contemporary Affairs, it caused one of the biggest flaps in recent publishing history. The catalog, a manifesto of the counterculture and paean to self-sufficiency, was a funky compendium of homespun technology and how-to's on everything from arc welding to pig-tooth nippers, from Amish work clothes to the literary essays of Ezra Pound.

Cheap criticism pooh-poohed the volume as the "hippie's Sears catalog," and when the National Book award was announced, NBA juror Gary Wills resigned in protest because he didn't think the catalog qualified as a "book." The award citation called it a Space Age Walden, and one of the judges stuck his neck out far enough to remark: "In 100 years, 'The Last Whole Earth Catalog' probably will be the only book of 1971 to be remembered."

Overnight, Brand's $5 newsprint catalog became an international best seller ( 1.6 million copies were sold), and it pioneered a new species of book which the publishing industry dubbed the "trade paperback." The pin-striped Wall Street Journal trumpeted the arrival of the "catalog of catalogs," and the producers of "Bye Bye Birdie" and "1776" battled over who would get to turn the catalog, with a few kick lines and catchy tunes, into a Broadway musical. (Both deals fell through.)

In November, Brand, editor, visionary, entrepreneur, and alumnus of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, committed a much-awaited sequel called "The Next Whole Earth Catalog." It weighs in at 5 pounds 2 ounces, bears the inflation- struck price of $12.50, and contains 608 quarto pages stuffed with 2,700 items ranging from astronauts to zomeworks (a solar-power research group).

In 1971 Brand had left himself a hard act to follow, but the new catalog is better researched, better designed, and more profound than the "Last." It zestfully addresses the needs of the 1980s and aims at an audience that includes not only college students and veterans of the '60s, but also the vast American citizenry, shellshocked by inflation and in search of tax-free, do-it-yourself solutions. "Today's 'whole Earth' people are less concerned about countering culture than surviving," says Brand, who, with a score of young men and women, spent five months of 70-hour weeks compiling the catalog.

His staff, which Brand descibes as a bunch of "generalists hopelessly in love with details," works out of a converted luncheonette on the edge of Sausalito's houseboat ghetto, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The day I arrived at the offices on Gate Five Road, a black mutt was sniffing at a piece of moldy bread in the bushes and his owner, in green rubber boots, was in hot pursuit: "C'mon, Food Stamp! Get out of there!" Aging cars in the parking lot bore bumper stickers which urged: "Stop the Metric System" and "US Out of North america." The surrounding buildings were scrawled with graffiti: "Bad Investment Zone" and "Cultural Genocide," scars of the ongoing battle between condominium developers and waterfront residents.

Inside the office, at the end of a maze of shelved reference books, I found Stewart Brand sinking into an old couch covered with an Indian blanket.Looking as if he had just come ashore from his sloop, Bakea, he wore blue jeans, a bulky sweater, and scruffy leather track shoes. A navy Greek fisherman's cap covered Brand's thinning blond hair. Behind his weathered patrician features lurked a man, part-monk, part- clown, who got his education from Phillips Exeter Academy, Stanford University, and the Beats in San Francisco's North Beach. the penchant for catalogs he inherited from his father.

"My father was a mail order maniac. We had hundreds of catalogs coming to the house.Norm Thompson, L. L. Bean. He was always searching for better quality and prices, and instead of slogging it out on the street, he shopped with his feet up," says Brand, stretching out his six-foot frame and kicking his feet up on a black wood stove. "Vermont Castings Stoves, Stephenson Warmlite sleeping bags," he says dreamily. "They're the best in the world and available by mail order."

After short stints teaching Army basic training at Fort Dix and working as a photojournalist for the Pentagon, Brand started the Whole Earth Truck Store in Menlo Park, Calif., to serve droves of back-to-the-garden hippies who had moved to communes in Colorado and Arizona but hadn't the faintest idea how to farm.

In 1968, with $5,000 of family money, Brand published the first issue of "The Whole Earth Catalog," which reviewed mail-order tools and implements available through his "truck store." He sold 1,000 of that first issue of 61 jumbled tabloid-size pages. The second issue in 1969 sold 30,000; the third issue, 60, 000.

"The Last Whole Earth Catalog," published in 1971, was intended to be Brand's swan song but went through some 20 editions and supplements. It netted $1.5 million in profits, which Brand plowed back into his Point Foundation and the CoEvolution Quarterly, an iconoclastic magazine (and sort of ongoing Whole Earth Catalog) which he started in 1973 and still edits today.

The quarterly, an intellectual, interdisciplinary descendant of the Catalog, is devoid of advertising and every three months offers a dozen or so "think pieces" on a particular subject, say, broadcasting, physics, or small-scale agriculture, along with reviews of related books and tools.

In the quarterly as well as in the various metamorphoses of his catalogs, Brand displays an uncanny ability to peek around corners which most of us didn't even know were there. From his listening post in California (one of the five "bellweather states"; the others, says Brand, are Washington, Colorado, Connecticut, and Florida), he has developed a knack for reading "swift but shalow" currents of change years before they are perceived by the culture at large."The Next Whole Earth Catalog," For example, clues the American audience into the practice of "coppicing," employed for centuries throughout Europe but largely unknown in this country. (To coppice is to encourage certain deciduous trees to resprout from stumps, thus providing enough firewood year after year for a family of four from a woodlot 64 by 64 feet.) Part of the Brandian vision lies in his zoom-lens thought process. Writes Brand: "The moral of the coevolutionary perspective is its imperative to always look one level larger and one level finer (at least) than where you are. . . ." One quickly learns he is the sort of person who not only can find the universe in a grain of sand but also treats a galaxy, one billion light-years away, as part of his neighborhood.

Social trends are among his fortes, and after a quick comparison of "The Last Whole Earth Catalog" and Brand's most recent one, you won't need Bob Dylan to tell you the times they have a-changed. In 1971 the "Last" carried two solar energy listings (The Solar Energy Society and Farrington Daniels's "Direct Use of the Sun's Energy"). The "Next," however, lists alongside Daniels's 1964 classic 62 other "solar goodies" such as desktop sun-angle calculators and a $23 solar music box which tinkles "You Are My Sunshine."

The "Last" had two pages on computers, the "Next" has 12 pages on computers, plus articles on urban homesteading, video, and wood heat. (In 1971 there were half a dozen wood stove manufacturers. Now there are over 400.)

Geodesic domes, the rage of the '60s, are panned in the new catalog for "notorious leaking"; underground architecture is recommended. The "free schools" of a decade ago have given way to "teaching at home." The "Last" listed Neil Postman's "Teaching as a Subversive Activity." The "Next" lists a 1979 book by the same author entitled "Teaching as a Conserving Activity."

The eight-page section on "China" and the four-page section on "Black Interest" in the catalog nine years ago are nowhere to be found in the current edition.

Says Brand: "six years ago China was a model for radical america; now America is the model for technical and economic China. . . . For decades the tireless leader of the nation in civil rights and the arts, black culture seems to be getting a deserved rest these days."

The new catalog is subtitled "Access to Tools." Brand, who says a "tool consists of a use at one end and a grasp at the other," intends the catalog to provide the "handles," or "access information" to tools, which are "useful, high quality or low cost, and easily available by mail."

In his Diderot encyclopedic approach, Brand refrains from personal value judgments and even lists books on explosives and 12-gauge shotguns. "It was expressing my own trust that human nature is good," said Brand, "that you can trust people with details like how to use explosives."

Brand peers out from beneath the visor of his cap, which has slipped down on his forehead.He toys with the magnifying glass on his 11-blade "Explorer" Swiss Army Officer's knife, an item he reviews on Page 132 of the catalog as "the most useful tool any of us have ever owned."

Brand returns to the subject of selectivity: "The stuff in the catalog is not limited to needs of people who think the way we do. People use it who have values totally alien to ours. People who treat real estate in a way I see as destructive will find in the catalog a good book on surveying and buying land in the country. But in the process they might also pick up a book on how to plant trees, and the importance of watersheds. We shy away from pontification."

Brand's basic rule of thumb is "Give them a bag of nuggets and let them make their own connections."

Each item in the catalog is a bite-size, digestible morsel of information. He prefers a telegraphic style of communication and somehow can perceptively review in a dozen terse sentences the same book that occupies umpteen column inches in The New York Review of Books. Brand is known throughout the offset-printing world as "one of the best short blurbers in the business."

Page 510. "The Reader's Adviser, a Layman's Guide to Literature": "If you throw darts at a world map and go where they point, you'll have a much more interesting vacation than anything the travel bureau can offer. Likewise, if you throw one of these hefty volumes at a bed, examine the open pages and read in the direction indicated, your mind will meet minds a bookstore dare not carry. -- SB."

Page 146. Woodline: The Japan Woodworker Catalog. $1. "Woodline has the best such tools available in America, many of them far finer our skills can make use of yet. It's an interesting experience to be shamed by a tool. . . . -- SB."

In the catalog, along with the succinct prose of Brand and other reviewers, are listed prices, mail order addresses, brief excepts from the particular book, and diagrams. Both the "Last" and the "Next" have been taken to task for being primarily a catalog of "things and stuff, not people and organization." These critics say the catalog is "too bookish."

Brand responds: "I see books as skills. Most of the books we list are how-to and some why-to. Organizations have a way of being ephemeral and are hard to review, whereas a product is a specific thing you can order by mail."

Some of the specific "things" you can order through the new catalog include: a world map (7 by 9 1/2 feet) for $17.65, from the Defense Mapping Agency Office of Distribution; WD-40 ("the universal lubricant. If somethng is stuck, or squeaking, or rusting, you point this spray can at it, go pshhht, and the problem disappears"); a $13 solar beanie ("the propeller on the beanie spins when you stand in sunlight"); hard-to-find work tools such as the Greenlee nail puller, Osmundson's Wizard Bar, the Blue Grass carpenter's hammer, and Fas Set sawhorses; records of ethnic music ranging from the Mountain Music of Peru to Japanese Shakuhachi, and hunting songs of the Eskimos of Hudson Bay; a "work horse tricycle" and tunable tom-toms for children; a subscription to the Farm Show newspaper, $9 a year for six issues ("a good place to follow the incredible amount of tinkering going on as American farmers look for alternatives to expensive or scarce gas and diesel fuel. . .").

Brand writes in the opening pages of the catalog: "We're here to point, not to sell. We have no financial or other obligation to any of the suppliers listed. (No one's ever even tried to buy us, come to think of it.) We only review stuff we think is great. Why waste your time with anything else?"

The CoEvolution Quarterly employs about a dozen people, and Brand had to double his staff for the production of the new catalog. anne Herbert, poduction editor on the catalog, wrote the Rising Sun Newsletter, a staff gossip column, which runs in the lower right corner of every two-page spread in the catalog.

Art Kleiner was six months out of journalism school when Brand hired him as research editor for the catalog. I met Kleiner in his cubbyhole, which also happens to be the kitchen in which the staff communally prepares and eats lunch. Kleiner, a clever, whiskered fellow in purple tennis shoes, was devouring a jar of hot green peppers.

"It's a very kind organization," he said, "not at all competitive. Stewart gives us enough to do so we're glad, not threatened, when someone else shows up to help."

One of the few fringe benefits of working for Brand's Point Foundation publications are the two daily staff volleyball games held on a dirt court next to the Sausalito offices.

"Volleyball has been part of our operation since 1970 and obviates obvious office politics," says Brand, stuffing his Swiss Army knife back into his pocket. "It's cheaper than health insurance and the game builds character in unlikely places."

Brand has always been a games enthusiast. He helped organize the first "New Games Tournament" in 1973, which evolved into "The New Games book," a compendium of safe, imaginative, roughhouse games, whose general rule is, "If you and your opponent ever stop enjoying playing, you've lost the game."

(Brand personally invented Earthball, the "Pied Piper of New Games," which is played with a six-foot rubber and canvas globe which can be thrown, kicked, pushed, or hugged.)

As I sat down to talk with Stephanie Mills, one of the indefatigable proofreaders on Brand's staff, the 4 p.m. volleyball game was getting under way. "OK, kids, no shirking! It's time for volleyball!" shouted Jonathan Evelegh, a British punk-rocker-turned-catalog-proofreader. The offices were evacuated instantaneously; Mills and I promised to join the second game.

Stephanie Mills has known Stewart Brand for nearly a decade. Their friendship dates back to "the days of the truck store."

"The new catalog has a slightly different audience in mind," says Mills. "We still have articles on how to build yurts and tipis, and to tan hides and garden organically. We're still writing for the original 'us,' but since then some of 'us' have bought three-piece suits and moved to Sacramento." (Jerry Brown, a close friend of Brand's and a contributor to CoEvolution Quarterly, moved to Sacramento to become governor of California in 1975.) "Now we're also running articles about real estate and inflation-proof ways of maintaining your wealth."

Through her office window, Mills has a view of the volleyball court. Brand has just moved into the front line and wears a broad smile on his face. Either he is winning or having a good time, or both. Stewart's secret is, "he never underestimates the reader's intelligence," says Mills. "Nobody does it better than SB. He provides information without condescending. He assumes our readers are bright, ignorant people trying to navigate on a vast ocean of information."

"They [the catalog and the CoEvolution Quarterly] are the most reader-participatory publications I know. People will pick up a catalog and read what we have to say about Buck knives. Eventually they may learn enough to disagree with our review. They write in a letter and we'll print it in the 'Next to the Last Penultimate Catalog,' if there is one."

Whether or not there will actually be another catalog after the "Next," Brand isn't saying. What he will say about the future is that he is optimistic. Unlike most of his liberal friends, Brand looks with decided relish on the next four years of Ronald Reagan.

"We small businessmen will get a change if Reagan lives up to his promise and stays off our backs," he says. "American institutions have grown fat and lazy. Bucky Fuller once told me his generation's best ideas came out of the depression. I expect the next several years will be a real period of invention out of desperation. We'll see a lot of new ideas bubbling up. All this muddling end of materialism. Consumerism and 'stuffism' have exhausted their welcome."

Brand's embracing of Milton Friedman's neoconservative economics and his enthusiasm for Gerard O'Neill's space colonies have recently gotten him into hot water with the organic, "small is beautiful," appropriate- technology constituency. But Brand seems too preoccupied with the search for tomorrow's frontiers to be looking over his shoulder or slowed down by his critics.

As Brand recently told one interviewer: "The image of 'me and mah woman and mah kids and mah dog and the chickens an ducks and cows and the woods' being self-sufficient [the image of the original catalog] is self-limiting and maybe a self-destructive fantasy. . . ."

To pigeonhole Brand as a "high tech" convert, however, would also miss the mark and certainly overlook his strong environmental stands, his deep respect for American Indian culture, and his devotion to the compassionate teachings of the late anthropologist-biologist Gregory Bateson, to whom Brand dedicated the new catalog.

"I learned a certain bravery from Kesey's Merry Pranksters, but I learned my caring and clarity from Bateson. Some would call it wisdom," Brand told me.

The editor once devoted an entire issue of the CoEvolution Quarterly to the subject of "Trees," and he smiled warmly when I recalled the story Bateson tells in the catalog about replacing the 20-foot oak beams in the dining hall of New College at Oxford University. apparently some 5 to 10 years ago an inquisitive entomologist discovered that beetles had eaten their way through the college's 16th-century beams and the College Council was in tizzy as to where it might find replacements.

Finally, the college forester stepped forward and said, "Well sirs, we was wonderin' when you'd be askin'."

He told them that the college founders had had the foresight to plant an oak grove when the dining room was 400 years later the college would have the wood for a new set of beams.

"A nice story. That's the way to run a culture," wrote Bateson.

Bateson might also have said to his disciple, Brand, "That's the way to run a catalog," for, on one of the final pages of the catalog, the editor has printed a "Tree budget."

In it, Brand calculates that the first printing of 140,000 copies of his 5 -pound catalog required 770,000 pounds of paper, the equivalent of 6,160 trees, or 14 acres of watershed.

"Sounds like a lot of trees," says Brand. "Supposedly well over 140,000 people will read a sold-out first printing of the Next Catalog. If only 5 percent -- 7,000 people -- are inspired by our tree sermons to plant one tree each, there will be a net tree gain. Otherwise, loss.

"Long live tree flesh and responsible tree people."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Stewart Brand and his five pounds of ideas for the '80s
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today